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Olympic memories: US bias showed; emotional images remain

If you wonder whether the US media and general public were a wee bit too chauvinistic during the Olympics, consider this: there was one female gymnast at Los Angeles who won four gold medals, but her name wasn't Mary Lou Retton.

Mary Lou won the big one, of course, the individual all-around championship, but only by an eyelash over Romania's Ecaterina Szabo, who finished just .05 behind her after two full days of competition. And it was Szabo who won just about everything else, capturing gold in the floor exercise, the balance beam, and the vault while leading her companions to the team title.

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So despite the fact that Americans could be excused for thinking Retton was the only gymnast there, the fact is that Szabo's four golds and one silver represented a performance at least as impressive as Mary Lou's total of one gold , two silvers, and two bronzes. And that goes double when one takes into consideration the site of the competition.

Judges are human - they can hardly help being influenced at least a little bit over a period of time by the reactions of the crowd. Even Nadia Comaneci couldn't win the all-around gold in Moscow four years ago, finishing second to the USSR's Yelena Davydova despite what most observers felt was a superior performance. And as the Romanians complained justifiably this time, the cards were similarly stacked pretty heavily against Szabo in Pauley Pavilion.

Little Ecaterina did all she could to overcome her rival's ''home court advantage,'' though, and from what I saw on television she certainly could just as easily have been the winner. It was relatively close, however, and in a close contest - as her coach, Adrian Goreac, pointed out afterwards - she really didn't have much chance.

This isn't to take anyting away from Retton. Gymnasts don't do the judging, they just compete - and Mary Lou did all she could too, climaxed by that pressure-packed perfect vault in her final event with the gold medal on the line. You won't find any better example of rising to the occasion than that.

To put the final results in their proper perspective, though, just ask yourself what you think the outcome would have been if the competition had been held in Bucharest. Or, more to the point, if it had taken place on neutral ground.

And if you don't think the US media slanted its coverage, try this final question for size: How do you think the story would have been played in this country if Mary Lou had been the one who won four gold medals and got edged out in the all-around by just 5/100ths of a point?

Emotional images stand out

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It's the emotional moments like these, of course, that will remain most vivid as the Los Angeles Games begin receding into the memory bank and the Olympics start their four-year hibernation. Surely no one who saw it will forget the image of Mary Lou leaping up and down with unrestrained joy and racing over to embrace her coach, Bela Karolyi, after that spectacular final vault. Or the picture of sprinter Evelyn Ashford, letting out all the deeply felt emotion of so many years as she tearfully accepted her gold medal? Or, of course, the one of Mary Decker lying on the infield grass with disbelief, anger, frustration, and a dozen other emotions pouring out after the collision with Zola Budd that ruined her Olympic dream. And those are just a few of the dozens of dramatic moments, both happy and sad, that come to mind.

There was Australian swimmer Jon Sieben's jubilation after his startling upset of West Germany's great Michael Gross in the 200-meter butterfly. There was American wrestler Jeff Blatnick, whose long road to the Olympics included overcoming a difficult physical problem, letting out his emotions at his moment of victory and again on the podium. And who can forget Japan's veteran gymnast Koji Gushiken battling to hold his emotions in after ending his own long quest for Olympic gold, or Morroco's Nawal El Moutawakil waving her national flag in jubilation after winning the women's 400 meter hurdles for her country's first-ever gold medal (Said Aouita later won another in the men's 5,000).

The list goes on almost endlessly. One can still see the US women's volleyball team celebrating victory after victory en route to the championship game, then leaving the court so tearfully following its loss to China. And of course there was Los Angeles's own sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks, so wildly elated in victory, then so tearfully emotional as she stood on the medal stand listening to the Star Spangled Banner.

The whole Brisco-Hooks saga, though, was another reminder of the nationalistic bias of US media coverage. All we heard as Valerie raced to her historic victories in the 200 and 400 and added another gold in a relay was that she had matched the 1960 triple gold medal feat of fellow-American Wilma Rudolph. There was little or no mention of the fact that both of these accomplishments fall shy of the four golds won in 1948 by Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands in the 100, the 200, the high hurdles, and a relay.

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